Five years ago, if you’d have told Hala Kamil she would be at this year’s Academy Awards as the star of a documentary, she probably would have stared at you in disbelief. In the old days, she used to stay up late into the night with her husband Abu Ali, sip coffee to stay awake, and enjoy the show. The reality of Hala’s life five years ago was one of terror. She lived on the frontline in Aleppo, desperately trying to keep her four young children safe from the Syrian Armed Forces.
In January I saw UNICEF Next Generation London’s screening of Children on the Frontline: The Escape. The final version of this, Watani: My Homeland was nominated for Best Documentary Short at The Oscars last week. Unlike the other nominees in that category, director Marcel Mettelsiefen documents the voices of war-stricken children who need saving. The documentary spans over three years from 2013 in Aleppo, through to Istanbul and then Goslar, a medieval town in Germany, in 2015. Watani focuses on Hala and her four children, and what better time to share the journey she bravely carves out for them than in the aftermath of International Women’s Day 2017.
Throughout the Syrian refugee crisis we have been inundated with statistics and numbers. We are no longer shocked by hearing numbers in the thousands; repeating these figures seems futile as they have become meaningless. And in reducing these people to numbers we have dehumanised them. We need to hear names. Abu Ali, Hala, Hammoudi, Helen, Farah, and Sara. We need to listen to their stories. We need to see refugees for the humans they are. We need to learn they would have stayed in their beloved country if doing so didn’t mean dying. We need to realise we are all the same. We laugh the same, we love the same, we look out for our families the same.
The Kamil family were ordinary Syrian citizens until their lives were turned upside down by the Syrian Civil War, which erupted out of peaceful protests in 2011. Abu Ali worked as an electrical engineer but we meet him in June 2013, as a commander in the Free Syrian Army. He talks of how he has sacrificed his children’s safety for the revolution. Instead of fleeing he is fighting for his children to have a future in their own country.
Abu Ali’s family live in a deserted house in Aleppo, in what was once a busy neighbourhood. His children are the only children left on the frontline.
A brilliant feature of this documentary is how Mettelsiefen interviews the children independently of one another, so we learn about their separate identities and how these shift over time when they adapt to their new lives in Germany. During his first conversation with Farah, aged 7, we hear a missile fly over the house. Farah innocently and nonchalantly deduces the name of the missile. Soon after we see Farah and her younger sister Sara, 4, playing a game in the rubble-filled house. Sara says “I’m an ISIS girl”, and tells her sister to play dead. A few weeks ago when I hung out with a 4 year old we did each other’s make up and had a game of ‘crabs’ (she would run past and I would pretend to be a crab and get her with my pincers, obvs). These childhood games are worlds apart.
Heartbreakingly, in June 2014 Abu Ali was kidnapped by ISIS. Hala suddenly lost the love of her life, and with that her sense of identity. There were smiles from the audience as Hala begins talking about coffee and how throughout 21 years of marriage it was a sacred morning ritual. She says if Abu Ali ever went to work without it she’d make him come home and drink it. She can’t hold back the tears as she tells the camera she still makes two coffees each morning, and drinks them both alone.
We see the danger in Syria intensifying as it becomes too risky for Mettelsiefen’s team to continue filming on the frontline. Hala has to make one of the hardest decisions she will ever face – does she keep her family in the homeland they know and love or does she uproot them to Europe where she knows people are intolerant towards their religion? Early in 2015 Aleppo was under siege, and as the bombing grew worse Hala knew they had to leave. She wants to give her children a future in Germany so one day they can return and rebuild their homeland. They reach a refugee camp on the Turkish border in January 2015 and successfully apply to the German Consulate for political asylum. In case you’re wondering why they couldn’t seek asylum in Turkey, it is not safe for refugees.
In April 2015 we enter their house in Goslar, Germany with them for the first time. Hammoudi rushes downstairs exclaiming, “there are 2 million beds upstairs!” This childish excitement and zeal for life continue as the children attend school and make new friends. They begin whole new chapters in their lives, forging new Syrian/German identities for themselves.
For Hala, we are reminded that things are not so easy. A playground scene cuts to a shot of Hala in her new home, holding a picture. She has been sent a photograph of a mangled male body as someone thinks it might be her husband. She says she receives news he is alive, and then news that he is dead regularly. She goes on to tell us “I have been dead for years. But something new must be built on ruins”.
After the documentary ended James Longman, BBC’S main Syria correspondent, and Sara Hajjar, producer of Children on the Frontline, set up a Q&A with the family themselves. We could not believe it, and we erupted into applause and a few tears as Hala and her family appeared on Skype. Hala then proceeded to thank us from the bottom of her heart for watching their story and showing an interest in Syria. She came across as humble and kind, and is one of the strongest mothers I have had the pleasure of learning about. She put her children first despite her own losses. She lost her husband, her home, her way of life and her sense of who she was in Syria.
She wants us to listen to her story, to Syria’s story. In an official statement, she explained the importance of her attendance at The Oscars last week here. “To have the opportunity to reach so many people with my message of peace, unity and understanding is invaluable.” Forgive me for shedding a tear of joy when I saw her on the red carpet.
What baffles me is how Goslar effectively stretched a welcoming hand to this family yet England seem to have forgotten how to do this. Our government continues to give a clear message that refugees aren’t welcome here. The Dubs Amendment, a plan promised by the government to rescue more child refugees, was outvoted yesterday by 287 votes to 267. The amendment was named after Lord Dubs, one of 10,000 Jewish refugees who in 1938 were allowed into England to escape Nazi prosecution. Let that sink in.
Watani is an eye-opening, powerful documentary reminding us that the real difference between our families and refugee families is the hand we have been dealt in life. We all deserve the right to live in peace, and despite our government’s actions yesterday, we can continue fighting for these humans who need our help.
Sign the Alf Dubs Petition to PM Theresa May here.
Watch Watani: My Homeland trailer here.